Communion ought to be a time of celebrating Christ’s finished work on the cross. It ought to be a time when we proclaim his victory over sin and sickness. Yet for many, communion is a time of navel-gazing self-examination. It’s a time of asking, Am I good enough for God? Am I worthy?
Although Jesus said “take this cup in remembrance of me,” often we drink it in remembrance of ourselves. This is a misplaced focus. Communion isn’t about you but him. As I have explained elsewhere, communion is a time for receiving the full benefits of what Jesus paid for.
Yet many churches have rules stipulating who can and cannot take communion. Never mind whether you are good enough for God, the real question is whether you are good enough to eat our crackers and drink our grape juice!
I’m not making light of communion. I understand where these rules come from. They come from these three verses:
Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. (1 Cor 11:27-29, KJV)
These are heavy-duty verses but you need to understand that Paul is not saying, “If you do communion wrong, God will damn you to hell. He’ll smite you with sickness and death.” No, when Paul tells the Corinthians, “your meetings do more harm than good” (1 Cor 11:17), he is simply saying:
Your meetings are a disgrace. You’re competing with each other (v.18), playing silly games of one-upmanship (v.19), and being incredibly selfish (v.21). Some of you are even getting drunk while others are missing out completely (v.21). By acting this way they you are despising the church and humiliating those who have nothing (v.22). ~My paraphrase
There’s no question the Corinthians were doing communion badly. But neither is there any hint that God was going to smite them for doing it badly.
So how do we account for these three judgmental verses above? What does Paul mean when he says those who participate in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord?
Taking communion in an unworthy manner
In these three verses Paul is speaking in general terms. Note the word “whosoever” as in “Whosoever shall eat this bread…” Paul is not saying you guys are drinking unworthily and you guys are guilty. He is saying whosoever drinks unworthily will be guilty. He is making a general claim of the kind…
– Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. (Rom 10:13)
– Whosoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst. (John 4:14)
– Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God abideth in him, and he in God. (1 John 4:15)
The proper question to ask is, who is Paul referring to? Who are the whosoever?
You might think it’s anyone and everyone but if that were so, then Paul would be wrong when he says there is no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1). Paul is not referring to anyone and everyone in general but anyone and everyone outside the kingdom. He is referring to those who don’t value the cross, namely, unbelievers who take communion without recognizing that Christ died for them. It’s not that they are unworthy – none of us is good enough – but that they are eating and drinking unworthily. They are not valuing what Christ has done for them.
But what does Paul mean when he says that such a person is guilty of the body and blood of the Lord?
An unbeliever who takes communion can no longer claim ignorance of the gospel. He can’t say “I didn’t know Jesus died for me” because he’s eating and drinking in commemoration of that very death.
Someone who has never heard the gospel is ignorant and therefore capable of receiving mercy and grace. But someone who has heard the gospel and scorned it is guilty of the blood and body of Jesus. Although Judgment Day awaits every one of us, such a person has essentially brought judgment on themselves ahead of schedule. That is what Paul is saying in verse 29.
It’s not that God is reaching down from heaven and smiting the scornful with the damnation stamp. They are damning themselves. They’re actually in a worse place than when they were ignorant because now they know. They have heard the good news of God’s grace and have hardened their hearts to it.
Clearly, Paul is not referring to Christians in these three verses. A Christian, by definition, can no more eat and drink judgment on their heads than they can blaspheme the Holy Spirit. Paul is not describing those who have received God’s grace with thanksgiving. He is referring to those who have tasted of the goodness of God but rejected it (Heb 6:4-6). He is describing those who have received the knowledge of truth but are unchanged by it (Heb 10:26).
Being “guilty of the blood and body of Jesus” in 1 Corinthians 11 is analogous to “trampling the Son of God underfoot” and treating as unholy “the blood of the covenant that sanctified him” in Hebrews 10:29. Think of the Pharisees. Think of Judas. They had a taste, they had a glimpse, and they concluded this is not for me. By hardening their hearts to the things of God, they placed themselves beyond the reach of God’s grace and mercy. Clearly, this is serious stuff!
And this brings me back to the question I asked at the top of this post:
Can unbelievers take communion?
Many churches say, “No. It’s inappropriate.” When I published my earlier series on communion many wrote to tell me the same thing. “Since unbelievers don’t value the cross, they shouldn’t be allowed to drink judgment on themselves by taking communion.” But don’t you find it interesting that Paul never says this. He never says,
When you do communion, make sure you don’t give any to the unbelievers among you. But be nice about it. Say something like, “If you’re visiting with us today, please let the cup and plate go past. Communion is for Christians only.”
Paul never says this because it’s a ridiculous thing to say! It is not our job to play the Holy Spirit. Our part is to proclaim the finished work of the cross and one way we do that is through communion. Denying communion to unbelievers is like denying them the gospel. It’s like saying:
I am going to proclaim the good news. If you’re visiting with us today, have the freedom to jam your fingers in your ears. The good news is for Christians only.
Can you see how absurd this is?
[UPDATE: What about verses 31 and 32? See this recent post.]
Communion is a symbol of God’s grace. It represents the awesome price God paid to redeem you from the prison of sin. An appropriate response is to say Thank you Jesus for your death on the cross! An inappropriate response is to dismiss it as irrelevant. This is not for me. Maybe later. But no one will ever respond unless they get the opportunity to respond.
Paul never says, “Make sure unbelievers don’t take communion.” Instead, he says, “Let each man examine himself.” In other words, give everyone a chance to respond.
And what is the proper way to examine ourselves? Answer: In light of the cross. Jesus died for me! Wow! The world says I’m nobody special and I know I am a miserable sinner. But if Jesus did all this for me, then he must really love me. Thank you Jesus!
Taking communion in an unworthy manner is surely a big deal, but it’s no worse than rejecting the gospel. If we are indiscriminate with one, we should be equally generous with the other.
The next time you do communion, don’t worry about who’s saved and who’s not. That’s not your concern. Instead, proclaim the good news of God’s love and grace and let each one respond as the Holy Spirit leads them.
Communion is a time for celebrating Jesus’ death. It is a time for proclaiming the awesomeness of his grace.
It is not a time for playing judge and jury.